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Maria T. Gentile, D.O.

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Treatment of Pain and Injury

Brief History of Cranial Osteopathy



William Garner Sutherland, D.O. - Founder of Cranial Osteopathy (Osteopathy in the Cranial Field)

1873 - 1954


William Garner Sutherland was born in Portage County, Wisconsin in 1873. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a homemaker.  Dr. Sutherland was the third of four children. His first professional job was as a reporter with a local newspaper in the northern part of Wisconsin. He remained at this job until the age of 22.

In 1895, Dr. Sutherland enrolled in the American School of Osteopathy [ASO] (now, the A.T.Still University of Health Sciences)). He graduated at the age of 25 in 1898.  Dr. Sutherland was an extraordinarily bright student and while at the ASO he made an observation that would change not only his life, but the lives of many osteopaths and patients/countless others.

While looking at a disarticulated skull in the hallway of the ASO, he noticed that the places where the bones articulate were beveled “like the gills of a fish.”  He felt this suggested both a sense of motion and of respiration.  This was the launching point for the extensive study, discoveries and teaching to which he would later dedicate his life.

Dr. Sutherland determined that there is a palpable movement within the body that occurs in conjunction with the motion of the bones of the head. This is a rhythmic alternating expansion and contraction motion in the cranium which is part of what he termed the Primary Respiratory Mechanism (PRM). This motion exists in every cell of the body and can be felt and worked with in any part of the body by a trained physician.

Of his discovery, Dr. Sutherland has said, “ Have you ever had a thought strike you? I have told many times of the thought that struck me before I graduated from the American School of Osteopathy. [In trying] to prove that motion between cranial bones in the living adult is impossible....I gained knowledge not only of the articular mobility of the skull but also of the Tide and something within that I call the "Breath of Life." I do not consider this contribution of thought mine--I call it a guiding thought.”

The Primary Respiratory Mechanism is a model proposed by Dr. Sutherland to describe the interdependent functions among five components as follows:

  1. The inherent motility of the brain and spinal cord
  2. Fluctuation of the cerebrospinal fluid
  3. Mobility of the intracranial and intraspinal membranes
  4. Articular mobility of the cranial bones
  5. The involuntary mobility of the sacrum between the ilia (pelvic bones)

Cranial Osteopathy was discovered, developed and taught by William Garner Sutherland, DO, in the first half of the 1900s. Dr. Sutherland always emphasized that the cranial concept was incorporated within the teaching of Dr. Still's science of osteopathy.

Despite a growing number of loyal students and appreciative patients, Dr. Sutherland was met with an avalanche of criticism and was labeled a "quack" for his theories on the mechanism of "primary respiration." The strain of those early years took a toll on his first marriage and Dr. Sutherland divorced in the 1920s. He had one child from this marriage. Dr. Sutherland remarried in 1927 and remained with his second wife, Ada, for the remainder of his life.

Intensive study of Cranial Osteopathy began in 1939.   Today, Dr. Sutherland's observations have been borne out by scientific study and computer imaging technology, and his work has been accepted as medical fact.

Dr. Sutherland performed his research and practiced medicine for most of his life in Missouri. In 1951, at the age of 78, Dr. Sutherland left the Midwest and moved to Pacific Grove, California. He and his second wife, Ada Strand Sutherland, lived together in California until he passed away in 1954. Dr. Sutherland left behind an invaluable contribution to medicine revered by Osteopaths all over the world.

William Garner Sutherland, D.O., D.Sc.(hon.)           



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